Between something. And nothing
In: Viola Weigel in the book Jochen Mühlenbrink: Fragil, 2013, Radius-Verlag, Stuttgart.
A small square of cardboard. A dented, wavy carton, colour-stained and worn at the edges and corners. On the surface, so it seems, a format-filling diagonal cross of dark brown adhesive tape. More thing than a picture.
One wonders where the image is, and indeed what the image should or can be at all? For all its unartistic appearance or material poverty remote from art, the carton looks more like a support with a sheet of paper affixed for stability, or else a useful substitute palette for wiping off the paintbrush.
The obvious painterly traces also emerge in several inconspicuous, uncontextualized blue and red-brown marks or sprays, loosely distributed, and covering the otherwise bare carton.
Excess paint left over as a brushstroke, or from painting, spills over the actual format edges. Yet the abruptly added cross absorbs the bareness, further heightening it, even with outright aggression. Here, something is offensively erased. This mount no longer supports any image.
With Jörg Immendorff’s Hört auf zu malen (Stop Painting, 1966) in mind, the interpretation seems all too clear. One cannot tackle reality with vain painting. The painter has grasped this and is also Dagegen.
The self-criticism is productive – and remorsefully or auto-aggressively, whichever you prefer, the artist’s self-effacement favours societal and political agitation and propaganda. By such a negation of painting, he becomes subordinate, literally kowtowing to an ideal of whichever type or complexion. Yet this cross makes things not quite so straightforward.
Since its emergence in early Christian imagery, St Andrew’s cross, as exemplified here, was also always a martyrs’ cross. Does the artist realize that
he is making himself a martyr with such an act of agitation? And that he sacrifices his painting to a politicized and to this day raging Zeitgeist? One might
In symbolic terms perhaps it is also unnecessary to go quite so far back as the pre-Christian martyrs. Rather it is sufficient to recognize St Andrew’s cross as a
symbol of the dangers and warning signs. Thus, here it warned against images that are dangerous, and from which one had better keep a distance in the
interest of life and limb.
Alternatively this peculiar ‘picture-thing’ implies something entirely different. The painter is warning that things are not as they seem. Only then is it
necessary to re-examine this apparently non-pictorial self-effacement with regard to another ‘painting’.
Another slightly larger, also square wood panel. And more adhesive tape. In a more or less rigorous grid and wrapped around the panel – apart from a
rectangular zone towards the middle – is beige crêpe paper in Krepp. Several strips of adhesive tape already seem to have come loose or were sloppily folded
over. With great care and extreme accuracy something now seems attached to this panel. Yet this is on the side turned away. Are we then gazing at a reverse
side? At a wooden panel, concealing a secret, though under no circumstances ready to divulge this?
In the first case ‘something’ was erased, whereas now ‘something’ is turned away. At least, so it seems. In both cases the material quality of the mount emerges in the foreground. This is genuine wood, just like the carton is a genuine cardboard carton. Both ‘paintings’ quite openly manifest their thing- like materiality and are anything but picture-like in the conventional sense. They do not disclose any figures, landscapes or objects. In fact what they show
are not images, but plain adhesive tape on ‘unartistic’ mounts.
Are these cartons covered with tape or veneers perhaps anti-images or anti-painting? Do they reject the conventional as well as desired images that they
erase or turn away from? And why? Or is ‘something’ self-evident being overlooked in both cases?
In the light of such questions, tentatively, as in the first instance, and with regard to the inconspicuous, occasionally smooth, and occasionally folded and rippled adhesive tape, one discovers ‘something’ outrageous. For all the puzzling symbolic imagery, this ‘something’ is not adhesive tape at all. Instead it is nothing other than oil paint that has been applied with deceptive precision. This glaringly obvious fact is almost startling. How could it be overlooked? This is a perfidious deception of the eye, though with a long and particularly
paradoxical history that dates back to the 16th century, as Victor Stoichita described in depth. Ultimately, such ‘paintings’ are initially revealed as “pure
‘material’ (canvas, stretcher frame, paints etc.), but in reality this disclosure is a lie, since the ‘representation’ of this disclosure is in fact a painting”1. The
beholder longingly anticipates an image and gazes at ‘nothingness’. Expecting to glimpse a prospect of a pictorially visionary world, the viewer is confronted
with his or her own reality. Yet it only seems so. As a matter of fact this supposed prosaic reality originated precisely from the painter’s imagination.
The viewer sees a front side exposing a reverse side that is basically ‘in the guise of’ a front side. This is the epitome of trompe l’œil representation.
While the image gives the impression of representing nothing, nevertheless itshows the entire act of creating the painting. Everything is here that defines an
image. Along with pictorial reflection in images is a simultaneous revealing of contemplative reflection about images.
With full awareness Jochen Mühlenbrink confronts this dual paradox. Logically, his ‘effacement’ is, as it is painting, a highly positive act, an offensive positing
against non-pictorialness; just as the concealment discreetly encloses the secret before everyone’s eyes (in ‘crêpe band’) to keep it safe.
Paintings like Dagegen or Krepp attain enormous self-awareness in the sense that they show nothing yet almost reveal everything. They demonstrate visual
representation itself. The carton and wood panel appear to be full of deeper meaning and belong to the everyday repertoire of things, but in fact they are a
fantastic “negation of the visible wall”2 of our prosaic reality. They are a fantastic affirmation of what painting can be beyond pedantic reproduction or
the simulation of reality. Pictorially, there is undreamt potential in the interconnection of both levels and in ‘disclosing the lie’.
Painting allows reality to appear. Even if, apparently, there is nothing to see.Because at this very instant what emerges is a non-pictorial void, distance from
the image or the absence of any image.
Mühlenbrink has taken this to extremes in a series of pictures entitled Ohne Bild. The square wood panels are truly ‘without image’. They no longer support any
images. These paintings, which seem previously to have been affixed to their mounts with adhesive tape, have been torn or broken off. What remain are the
tatters, traces or remnants of the paintings at the edges, overlapping each other, intersecting and skewed. Basically, the viewer is looking at gaping ‘holes’ torn in
these pictures. The astonishing thing is the non-discriminatory painterly treatment of the scraps of images and strips of adhesive tape, the solitary post-
it notes or pencil pentimenti.
Everything, which appears as material form, is actually painted. The destruction is only superficial destruction. What is made manifest here is the absence of
images that we can only speculate about through contemplation. All the same. Even if they never existed these ‘lost’ images still claim intrinsic presence. A
reminder that most things only enter our consciousness at the moment of their loss, thus allowing us to recognize what we no longer have, or as is the case
here, we never had.
Mühlenbrink’s panels therefore become symbols of something that is missing, or absent and never materially existing. However, as absent entities these
unknown images are always present. They have no intention of tangible decay or of fading away, entirely regardless of whether they were ever here in the first
A virtual empty space emerges on the wood mounts and demands to be perceived by the viewer as potentiality. The absent images almost invite
visualizing them again or for the very first time (and not merely only as reconstruction), and to fill the material void with all manner of conceivable
images. What they challenge to appear is the utopia of the visual act itself: not the impression of a given actuality, but the original formation of reality in and
through the image.
The wood panels may originate from our world, however, pictorially the gaping open space in the middle of these ‘non-images’, as Mühlenbrink says, permits
the emergence of countless ‘non-places’ in all their unimagined reality. In other words, they are ‘u-topoi’. Indeed, they even save people from disappearing
without a trace, softly cherishing the memory of them by means of coloured bars and marks like in the two-part Brown Eyed, Red Hair.
These images do not get lost. Their persistence is not through loss; they gain figuratively world by world. They illustrate not nothingness as something, or
alternatively they revel in the lack of images.
Amidst the emptiness they turn themselves into a happening. The concept of ‘vanitas’ falls far too short here, just as the images are by no
means exhausted in virtuoso craftsmanship. They are no meticulous reports of the ephemeral or banal artistry. Instead, they are excessively rich fictions.
To be able to judge this it is quite probable that one must be, like Mühlenbrink, a painter through and through. One must know of the risks of every
appearance, or like Jean Baudrillard be a master of the simulacra, since the supposition of “trompe l’œil is only apparently realistic3.
It may be “linked to the self-evidence of the world”, although “such meticulous likeness” is imposed on it that in this surreal exaggeration it “becomes magical.
The trompe-l’œil [...] preserves something of the magical status of the image and hence something of the radical illusion of the world”. 4
It may be linked to the self-evidence of the material world, however, this apparently realistic link is at its core opposed to “any realist vision”5.
One of the most radical examples in art history is Cornelis Gijsbrecht’s Rückseite eines gerahmten Gemäldes (Reverse side of a Painting). Painted in 1670, the
front side of the canvas where the image is conventionally produced represents the reverse side of a painting. Here, this virtual reverse side is the actual image
– a paradoxical doubling of the real reverse side, which the viewer does not see. We are familiar by now with the perfidiousness of non-representational
Yet in the triptych Bilder einer Ausstellung Mühlenbrink takes a serious step further. He places three different sized canvases – measuring almost three
metres in width and over two metres high – directly on the floor. He leans them against each other objectively, pulling the two smaller canvases apart at
the front, like wings. However, the canvases cannot be identified as such. And nor can one identify a single or several images.
The canvases show on the other hand at least eleven containers for transporting the pictures made of cartons or cardboard, and neatly secured with
adhesive tape. These overlap each other, partly covering each other, and partly with one of them exposing the corner of the other. Since this arrangement is
created directly on the floor, not hung on the wall, it only further accentuates the deception.
Moreover in various places on the convincingly real looking packages there are dispatch labels, directional arrows or miniature motifs (even professional colour
wedges are included) to identify the content of the package, yet with no need to open the package in question – everything is ready just like an actual parcel waiting for dispatch.
One might certainly believe that this consignment was delivered a while ago for an exhibition, and that the works of art are now waiting to be unpacked before being hung in position.
Also, there is another highly idiosyncratic light. From the top right a light parallelogram falls across the centre of the canvases / parcels, so that a diagonally distorted window crossbar is even discernible. The simulated light path intensifies in multiple ways the impression that the triptych has been placed in a real room – whether or not a corresponding window actually exists under suitable daylight conditions. At the same time, even the individual packages cast diverse, at times real, at times deceptive shadows, which accentuate the detached effect of the image space in even sharper contrast to the external space.
What emerges from this is a virtual in-between, an impressive intermediate world of material and mental images. The non-pictures achieve real presence
and the hidden, invisible ones grow in the imagination into unerring cascades – entity and appearance, truth and deception, reality and image are no longer
distinguishable. There is an exuberant unison of the loss of reality and the gain of an unknown visual world.
Like Andy Warhol, whose Brillo Boxes entertain a similar interplay with artificial packaging and real content, Jochen Mühlenbrink could also say of his Bilder
einer Ausstellung, “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts”6. In doing so Mühlenbrink takes us as viewers out of reality into the painterly
fiction, and from here he brings us back to a world which appears transformed.
Translation by Suzanne Kirkbright
Victor I. Stoichita, Das selbstbewusste Bild. Vom Ursprung der Metamalerei (The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early
Modern Meta-Painting), edited by Gottfried Boehm and Karlheinz Stierle, Wilhelm Fink, Munich 1998, p. 304
ibid., p. 47
Jean Baudrillard, Within the Horizon of the Object: Objects in this Mirror are Closer than they Appear. Photographies
1985–1998, edited by Peter Weibel, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 1999, pp. 128–142
“My true Story – Andy Warhol in conversation with Gretchen Berg” (1966), in: I’ll be your Mirror: The Selected
Andy Warhol Interviews 1962–1987, edited by Kenneth Goldsmith, Da Capo, Boston 2004, p. 93